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Caspian News Exclusive: Interview With U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad

By Caspian News May 23, 2017

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Zalmay Khalilzad sat down for an exclusive interview with Caspian News in Baku, where he gave his views on US foreign policy towards the Caspian region, including Russia, as well as the role of the UN, the conflict in Syria, and North Korea / Jeyhun Alekperov / Caspian News

Q: Ambassador, you are a Muslim, and one of the highest ranking Muslim-American officials to have served in the United States government. The US could use more allies in the Muslim world. When Americans think about Muslims, they have stereotypes. What could Azerbaijan’s role be in working towards changing American stereotypes of Muslims?

A: In recent times there has been a more negative perception of Muslims because of the problems of extremism and terror, which is one reaction you see from some Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, because of various crises that exist in that region. There are many other Muslim groups and parties who are different than the extremists and terrorists.

Among them are Muslims in a country like Azerbaijan, which is a secular Muslim country. Like in America – America is a secular country, people can have their faith, and they can believe very strongly in their faith. But, that is not the same as having a religious state.

Understanding Azerbaijan can be useful in appreciating the diversity that you see in the Muslim world.

All Muslims, at one level, are the same, but they are very different from each other and many of the problems of the Muslim world are not with the West, or the West has no problem with the Islamic world. Inside the Muslim world [the challenge is] about how to become modern, how to make tradition, how to make modernity, and how to balance these two; how to achieve economic development, how to [overcome] political problems, and how to achieve security.

The Muslim world has suffered from foreign interventions, colonialism, their borders have been drawn by outside powers, and they used to be a civilization on the march, dominant in the world [and then] have been in a period of decline. What are the reasons for the decline? What should be done about it to make progress? There are issues on which Muslims are arguing, debating, and there are differences. So it is a very complicated issue.  I think learning more about Azerbaijan by others, by America, can have a positive effect.

Q: What should we do as Muslims to fight against stereotypes that we have right now about our religion and our people?

A: There are two parts in my view of this issue. First is the responsibility of the Muslims generally, and especially in the Middle East. The second is to overcome the crisis that has been there for some time that has produced the circumstances in which extremism and terrorism have been produced. It means actions that are needed on the part of different groups, for example, the Shia and Sunni divide that produces violence and extremists.

There is a need for Muslims to come together as Europeans did during their religious wars amongst Christians. There has to be a mutual acceptance that both Shias and Sunnis are equally good Muslims. In addition, they have to come to some agreement, or some rules of the game, of what to do and what not to do. As in the Westphalia agreement after the European religious wars, there was some state system that came out of those wars.

Muslims need to embrace modernity, improve living conditions, improve the standing of the people, including women to deliver services to their people.

Extremism is a manifestation of the crisis of civilization among people saying what went wrong with us that we’re not doing as we’re saying, it is the fault of the West or we need to go back to earlier times when the prophet and people ruled the world of Islam. Others say no, we need to become like those who’ve developed, learn from them or some mixture of these. That is what Muslims need to resolve.

I see some indication that people are becoming more open to embracing modernity. That’s a responsibility on Muslims’ side. Because it is one of the wrongs that extremism has produced. And sometimes even it is used as an instrument of policy by the governments. This perception will endure.

The second responsibility is to the rest of the world who are non-Muslim. They need to become more sophisticated about Muslims and Islam, that they are not all the same. Islam a religion of more than 1.6 billion people within different countries and different cultures. The majority are not extremists and terrorists, they are like the people everywhere else, and they have the same aspirations, the same life, but they believe in Islam. So there are steps necessary on both sides.

Many sophisticated people in West understand this. But sometimes politicians can demagogue these issues. After 9/11 happened, I became very prominent, an active face of American diplomacy in some of the most difficult areas. That shows America’s openness. President Bush made a strong distinction between the terrorists and Muslims. He encouraged Americans to differentiate Muslims and understand Islam. We have seen its potential.

But I think this has to be constantly redone. We can’t say that because Bush has said so, it is so [forever]. No, it has to be done constantly. There is a fear of Islamic extremism, there is a fear of terrorism – the attacks that take place become reason for the people to be concerned and to be afraid. They need to take measures against extremism and terrorism, but not discriminate against Muslim citizens, Muslim visitors, and Muslim people. At this point, this is one of the most complicated, most challenging, and more difficult issues. But there is work to be done on both sides.

Q: What concrete or specific role do you see Azerbaijan playing in US foreign policy in the coming future?

A: Azerbaijan is important for several reasons. First is energy, geopolitics, and security. Second is its location in the Caucasus in a very sensitive part of the world – bordering Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Therefore, when these powers are competing or cooperating, the effects of their activity are important for the rest of the world.

Azerbaijan, therefore, is important in terms of its location and changing the geopolitics of the region. Azerbaijan is also important because it is part of the territorial dispute that exists because of the occupation by Armenia of its territory. That is an issue that could pose a threat to peace and security in the region and beyond.

For all those reasons Azerbaijan has an important place in the US foreign policy, and it should have an important role in the US foreign policy.

Q: The Trump administration has based its policy on things like “Make America Great Again,” and strengthening international security. Do you think the administration will work more actively with Azerbaijan at the regional level?

A: The Trump administration is in the process of deciding its foreign policy, its priorities. It is one thing to say some things during the election campaign, it is another thing when you are actually in charge and you have to make decisions.  At this point, a lot of issues are being reviewed and decisions are made based on those. I don’t believe that as of yet the review of the Caucasus region have been conducted or have been completed.

But I do think that for the reasons I’ve just mentioned, Azerbaijan should and hopefully will get more attention, and I anticipate an improvement in the relationship between the Trump administration and Azerbaijan.

Q: What should Azerbaijan do in order to become a priority in US foreign policy?

A: I don’t want to speak about what Azerbaijan should do. I don’t feel comfortable giving advice to Azerbaijan. As any other country, Azerbaijan needs to define its own national interest; I’m sure it has, and developed a strategy for pursuing those interests, and then a plan based on the strategy.  Then it could implement its plans, given the changes that are taking place in the world – whether it is energy, geopolitics in the region; whether it is what’s happening in other parts of the world, including the US with the new administration, which is considering what it ought to do, what its role should be. There is so much going on in the world, there is competition if you like getting attention. And therefore the more effective Azerbaijan is in engaging, communicating, describing, advocating for its plans and ideas, the better it would be for the country. I don’t want to say what Azerbaijan ought to do specifically.

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Zalmay Khalilzad was a United States Ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-2005), to Iraq (2005-2007), and to the United Nations (2007-2009) during the George W. Bush administration / Jeyhun Alekperov / Caspian News

Q: The US has never made any clear statement supporting Azerbaijan with regards to the Nagorniy Karabakh – the land dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has been ongoing for over 25 years. Do you think the US should emphasize supporting the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity?

A: It is in our interest to emphasize and support Azerbaijan’s independence and sovereignty. That, I believe, is very important.

Second, with regard to the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the US has had an active policy trying to find a solution to this problem. Sometimes is has been done at a low-profile level. As to whether the US can alone play a decisive role in resolving the dispute, I’m not sure, but perhaps together with other powers, which also have impact and influence on this situation; it could be something to be thought about or could be done. But we also have a domestic situation in the US, and foreign policy is sometimes is an extension of the domestic politics. But I do believe in US activism and I am hopeful in the US’ service in resolving the territorial dispute that exists, due to the occupation of the lands that belong to Azerbaijan. I think this is a subject the US needs to consider, whether it can play a more active role.

Q: The UN Security Council adopted four resolutions, all in 1993, regarding the Nagorniy Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. All resolutions demanded Armenia withdraw its troops from Azerbaijani territories immediately. Twenty-five years later, these resolutions remain unfulfilled, thanks to Armenia. People in Azerbaijan are losing their belief in the UN and the Security Council. What do you see for the future regarding the UN? What will be the role of the UN in the world and in the South Caucasus region?

A: The UN is an organization that is made up of member states with the responsibility for the peace and security in the world. Its record of delivering on that promise is very mixed. You can see how the world right now [approaches] the specific problem of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

When you look around the world, it is one of the most difficult and most complicated periods, in terms of security, since World War II. Almost in every region, there are significant security problems and challenges. The UN’s record has raised questions in the minds of many people around the world, [asking] why the UN is not effective or why are resources given to the UN not being used appropriately, efficiently, or is there a waste of resources; should the organization be reformed, why reforming is difficult?

I believe that, despite the problems we see, the UN is a necessary organization. I also think it is necessary to reform it, to make it more effective.

The record shows just how reforming is so very difficult. The frustration that Azerbaijanis feel – imagine today how Syrians might be frustrated in an active war [that has been going on for] so many years, so many people suffering.

There is a broad frustration that the Trump administration is reviewing its policy, or the UN is raising the question of reducing the resources to the organization. The UN faces serious challenges and it needs to be reformed. And as I said before, it is difficult to reform.

Q: In the Caspian region, people are expecting the Trump administration to have warmer relations with Russia. Do you think that doing so could have a positive impact on solving problems in the Middle East, the South Caucasus and elsewhere?

A: You are right that the expectation in the US and around the world was given by what Trump said during the campaign about a better relationship with Russia. He said, wouldn’t it be nice if Russia and the US could get along and work together?

The reality of [Trump’s] first hundred days, however, is that there haven't been any significant changes with regards to US policy towards Russia.

There are reasons for that, of course. There are differences between the US and Russia on issues such as Ukraine, NATO, Syria, even on arms control. There is also a domestic issue in the US of the Russian hacking the campaigns. These have been factors that have produced or continued the mistrust that existed between the US and Russia since the previous administrations into this administration.

I think Secretary of State Tillerson has said that first it is the lowest point for many years between the two countries, and relations can be said to be as difficult as any sense in the Cold War.

Now, having said that, it would be good if Russia and the US could cooperate in solving regional problems, the Syrian problem, and deal with ending the war in Syria. It would be good if they could cooperate in addressing the problem of terrorism if they could cooperate in dealing with frozen conflicts such as the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But, having said it would be good doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen. They have to engage, in my view, more intensely to share prospects, analysis, and interests.

No doubt, exploring possible areas of cooperation, building trust would be desirable for all. I think President Trump, in my judgment, would like to test possible cooperation on solving problems with Russia. But it will take the time to get to that level of trust.

Q: Given global developments, in particular between the US and North Korea, do you see an excuse on the horizon to start another world war?

While the relationship is very difficult between the US and Russia, there is a challenge from North Korea - a paranoid regime, very insecure and very authoritarian, maybe totalitarian in that it is holding 25 million citizens literally hostage by a government that sees nuclear weapons as an instrument of not only survival, but perhaps blackmailing and extending its reach not only to South Korea, Japan, but all the way to the US. So, North Korea is a serious problem.

A: We have other problems, like Ukraine, where Europe is facing a challenge from the east – from Russia. Then we have unraveling parts of the Middle East. You see the rise of sectarianism, the rise of geopolitical rivalry between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and now you’ve got Russia for the last couple of years becoming more involved.

Then we have conflicts that are ‘frozen’, and conflicts that are problems that could lead to a conflict, like North Korea for example; or Syria’s concerns. But I believe that it is not in our interest, not in Russia’s interest, not in China’s interest to [get into] a global war or a global confrontation. We and Russia, as two super powers in the nuclear realm – we have the most nuclear weapons – we have a special responsibility for maintaining peace and security between us in the nuclear realm. And so I think it is in the interests of both of us, and the leadership of world countries, to maintain strategic stability between us.

Russia feels we have not treated it well at times, feels that we have not taken its interests into account at times. Russia is a power that is having serious problems. I understand that its economy is not doing well, its gross national product is much smaller than the US, China, Britain, Germany, and Italy. It is not even among the top twelve world economies. And it is difficult for Russia to adjust to that change. But, its military and strategic nuclear position remain strong. I hope that through dialogue we can find areas of cooperation. I see a desire to turn a new page and to start looking for options to rebuild trust, to re-engage, perhaps even to work together. I think it won’t be easy, it will take time. But I found that the potential for somehow improving relations does exist.